Childhood should be playful. Play is said to be the work of children. But, sometimes, the ability to play becomes strained when children have conditions such as Attention Deficit Disorder, with or without hyperactivity (ADD/ADHD).
Part of living with a child with ADHD is to understand the special needs of these
children in order to maintain a happy and healthy balance. This includes the
necessity of selecting the right playthings so playtime activities do not become more
stressful by conflicting with what these children can comfortably manage and enjoy.
One way we’ve heard ADHD described is that it’s a performance disorder and not a
deficiency of knowledge or skill. It is primarily manifested as a set of symptoms that
interfere with the ability to focus on a task and get it completed.
Child psychologists and psychiatrists value the importance of play in therapy for
children with ADHD. The right types of play allow children to express themselves in
ways they can’t do otherwise. Play within the right context and with the right
supervision can also improve a child’s focusing abilities and help him or her to learn
the basics of getting along more cooperatively with other children. Medical attention
for proper diagnosis and consideration of medication are certainly the core of
treatment of ADHD. But in many situations, proper managing of a child’s
environment and activities can do a lot to keep the symptomatic behavior under
A toy doesn’t have to be full of moving or electronic parts to stimulate a child’s
imagination. Children with ADHD often have difficulty with multi-step instructions
and have an inability to stay focused on the task at hand. They frequently become
frustrated with themselves in these situations. Toys can be very simple and still do a
better job of keeping a child focused and entertained as well as giving them an
outlet to express their feelings. Two such toy categories are pretend play and art
The flexibility of these traditional play activities can be as simple or involved as the
opportunity permits. So, because these types of play are events of totally variable
lengths, a child can complete the activity and feel a sense of accomplishment and
Another advantage of pretend play and artistic activities for children with ADHD is
that these categories of play allow parents and caregivers to provide positive
feedback and reinforcement that is invaluable in keeping the child focused…and
invaluable for the child’s self esteem.
Pretend Play – Children of almost every age enjoy pretend play and benefit from the
exploration of feelings that it affords. Dolls and action figures, puppets, costumes
and even blocks are all toy categories that allow a child to fantasize and act out
situations. Under the right supervision, children with ADHD can learn the value of
considering the consequences of their actions. As they decide what happens next in
their fantasy, they can get a better understanding of how others react to certain
actions. In situations where you can encourage them to finish their story line, you
also can help them get used to following through on a task.
Drama – Dramatic activities such as skits, recitations, puppet shows and simple
storytelling can let a child concentrate on being a different character for a short
time. Put a costume on them and watch how quickly they start getting into
character. However, it may take direction from you to keep them focused and
enjoying the event.
Costumes need not be elaborate to let a child be another character. It need only be
representational. A single feather in a headband, a necktie, a hat, sunglasses,
scrubs or even just a sign or patch fastened to clothing is enough to let a child jump
into another role. Let the child use his or her imagination to help find costume
pieces as part of the dramatic play process. And don’t restrict them to the costume
box. Colanders make great space helmets.
When Sid’s children were growing up, they had a “costume closet” with an
assortment of coats, brightly colored shirts, hats and accessories such as scarves,
belts, wigs and, of course, masks. If an article of clothing became outdated, before
disposing of it, they’d consider its costume potential. Putting together a costume for
Halloween was always a big event. On top of that, living in New Orleans offered
them Mardi Gras as a second costuming event each year.
Playhouses and play tents – Giving a child a space of his or her own is a great way to
encourage imaginative pretend play. Whether it’s stretching a sheet over dining
room chairs to make a house or a purchased indoor or outdoor playhouse or play
tent with a theme, a child is free to role-play and make up scenarios that could
happen in the space.
At The Creativity Institute, we carry several types of playhouses, play tents and
tunnels in themes that include a teepee, theater tent, castle and military
camouflage. We also carry puppet theaters that can double as play stores and other
types of play spaces. Our big foam blocks are large enough to construct make-
believe buildings and tunnels a child can climb over and under. We also have play
panels that can be moved around to create an ever-changing mix of play
environments. This type of pretend play is also conducive to playing with others,
offering an opportunity for a child to develop those all-important socialization
Puppet shows – Puppets allow a child to act out many different roles and have fun
with character voices. There are many sources for skits that can be adapted to the
puppet stage and even ready-to-perform scripts in your library and on the Web. At
The Creativity Institute, we have a section devoted to puppetry with puppets and
puppet theaters. You’ll find links to script resources on the Internet, puppeteer tips
and even a free sample scripts we adapted for the puppet stage. To make it easier
to get started, we’ve bundled together puppets and puppet theater packages and
even grouped puppet casts with accompanying scripts, ready to perform. There’s an
Aesop’s Fables Puppet Starter Set with five puppets and four fables adapted to the
puppet stage. There’s also an Old MacDonald Puppet Starter Set with Farmer
MacDonald and seven barnyard animal puppets and an accompanying script of the
song. Again, your direction will be invaluable in providing enough structure for the
event that will let the children have a greater sense of accomplishment and stay
And because puppets offer a degree of separation from real issues, they can offer
lots of opportunities for learning about inappropriate behaviors. For example, if a
child with ADHD has been overly aggressive with other children, acting out the
consequences with animal puppets can offer a more painless and effective lesson.
Record it – Getting the performances down on tape gives everyone more
opportunities to laugh and enjoy it all over again. There’s a difference between
taping the children playing at creating the performance and “making a movie” of the
show, and both are wonderful to watch again and again. Taping the children at play
shows their performance, as well as the behind-the-scenes preparation. Making a
movie is just a matter of trying to capture what the audience would see. All you have
to do is prepare the children for the scene and start and stop the camera at the right
times – and move on. You can even start with a title card the children can make for
the show – using their own artistic skills.
If the child acts out while taping is underway, continue shooting, but keep your
reprimands to a minimum. Put your energy into trying to refocus the child’s
attention toward continuing the performance or easing into a hastier conclusion.
Later, when viewing the tape, the child may be able to see problem behaviors more
clearly, rather than focusing more on your anger.
Dollhouses and activity sets – Playing with dolls and action figures is another
valuable opportunity for pretend play. Dollhouses, toy pirate ships, castles,
firehouses, farms and other traditional activity sets have the magic to let children
get lost in their imaginations. Even the more popular activity sets based on movies
and TV shows allow the same opportunities. And don’t forget what imaginations can
do with boxes, blocks and anything that can become the setting for a creative play
Blocks – Toys for children with ADHD should be simple and encourage the use of
their imaginations, and one of the most basic of toys is building blocks. Block play
can be great for many ages. From simple stack-up and knock-over fun to
imaginative building. Blocks teach problem-solving skills, because a child discovers
how stacking and matching can produce different results. They can also become
components of pretend play, because a child can fantasize what the structures are.
There are also big foam blocks that are almost “life size” and let children create
their own fantasy playhouses. These lightweight blocks are so versatile, they can be
climbed on or tunneled under. Magnetic block and construction sets have pieces
that connect in more ways than can conventional plastic snap-together blocks and
allow even more imaginative opportunities. We also carry a selection of traditional
and colorful wooden blocks that are full of fantasy building opportunities.
Blocks, like many traditional toys, have other educational advantages for a child with
ADHD. The number of positive outcomes is limitless, so children can continue
playing until they’ve reached a level of personal satisfaction. Whether the child is
building with traditional blocks or shoeboxes, try to show interest in every
structure. Encourage the child to name creations, even if it’s simply Wobbly Land or
Crazy Tower. Showing interest without criticism offers your child valuable, long-
Art Activities – Any medium such as crayons, markers, chalk, paint and clay can give
a child a wealth of expressive opportunities. Sometimes you may want to suggest a
subject idea to get them started. Art supplies are some of the least expensive
educational toys you can provide. Gwynn used to bring home old stationery and
unused printed samples to give her children a virtually unlimited supply of art
paper. She’d also purchase low-end copy paper, offering the kids free rein on a
giant stack of blank paper.
And here’s something you can try on a big scale. Sid used to get leftover paper
billboards from the local outdoor company and tack them on his backyard fence,
backside out, to give the children blank giant-size panels for murals. The change in
scale of their artist’s canvas gets them thinking of possibilities in a different
perspective and keeps them intrigued for hours. Another way to give structure to art
activities is with their own easel. We carry a selection of folding, double-sided and
adjustable easels that provide a convenient supply of paper and drawing surfaces in
a self-contained, accessible environment.
One rule of thumb to follow to help inspire your kids to express themselves is to
encourage all efforts. Today’s crooked stick figure could lead to tomorrow’s
Picasso. Most important, artistic expression is highly therapeutic to your child, even
if it doesn’t happen to please your eye.
Books – There are many books that can hold a child’s attention. The public library is
a great start and your librarian can help you. Garage sales and community book
fairs are a great way to build a library of your own. Collections of rhymes, poems or
short stories are a good way to start with a child who is easily distracted.
The Oppenheim Toy Portfolio listed the top toys for children with attention-deficit/
hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and included, among other things, a magnetic
construction set, a tree-house-theme dollhouse play set, a decorate-it-yourself
birdfeeder, board games and a simple, basic rubber ball. Oppenheim also suggested
the toy general categories of dramatic play and artistic activities.
*The National Institute of Mental Health recommends that if ADHD is suspected, the
diagnosis should be made by a professional with training in ADHD. This includes
child psychiatrists, psychologists, developmental/behavioral pediatricians,
behavioral neurologists and clinical social workers. After ruling out other possible
reasons for the child’s behavior, the specialist checks the child’s school and medical
records and talks to teachers and parents who have filled out a behavior rating scale
for the child. A diagnosis is made only after all this information has been